Since October 2015, Israelis have endured stabbings, car rammings, and shootings in a wave of Palestinian violence that’s tapered off somewhat but hasn’t really come to an end.

Now it looks like arson can be added to the list.

This past week Israel has been battling massive fires with at least some of them caused by deliberate “nationally motivated” arson.

Most people on the planet would say that if arsonists start fires, then they should be held responsible for the damage. But as we’ve noted on many occasions on this website and as I discuss further below, some of Israel’s worst detractors aren’t like most people.

Instead of blaming the arson-terrorists, they want to pin it entirely on the pine trees.

Israel Faces a Wave of Fire

Over the last week more than 200 fires have burned across Israel—from Haifa, which was the hardest hit, to the Judean Hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem and even to the country’s southern communities.

Over 60,000 Israelis have had to be evacuated from their homes as their communities were consumed by the blazes. There’ve thankfully been no fatalities, but many people have been hospitalized for medical complications related to smoke inhalation. Countless trees and huge swaths of forestlands (some 32,000 acres thus far) have been burned to the ground.

Hundreds of homes and some businesses have been destroyed.

In Haifa, the study hall of a yeshiva (seminary) filled with Jewish holy books was engulfed by flames.

[credit: Chabad.org]

[credit: Chabad.org]

Thousands of Israelis are now homeless and hundreds of homes are uninhabitable.

As we noted in our prior post, Israeli authorities and firefighting experts believe that arsonists are to blame for at least some of the fires.

The initial blazes are now thought to be result of weather conditions. But officials are now saying that there can be little doubt that a number of the fires have been started deliberately, with arsonists “jumping on the bandwagon” after the first fires.

Some arsonists have now been caught in the act, and there’ve been over two dozen suspects detained.

At the time of this writing, the large fires in Haifa have reportedly been brought under control.

But Israeli firefighters, along with those from numerous countries and the Palestinian Authority who came to assist, are still working around the clock to control the flames that are raging in other parts of the country.

palestinian-firefighters-work-with-israelis

[credit: CNN]

[credit: CNN]

[Credit: Breaking Israel News]

[Credit: Breaking Israel News]

israel-in-the-eu-thanks-countries-for-help

Anti-Israel Activists Blame the Fires on Poor Forest Management

As the fires began to spread across Israel causing suspicions of arson, virulently anti-Israel activists like Ali Abunimah and Gilad Atzmon took to the airwaves, accusing Israel of slandering the Palestinian community and blaming the fires on mass-planting of the wrong type of tree.

Abunimah—who runs the vehemently anti-Israel website Electronic Intifada and is a leading voice in the BDS movement—tweeted a 2011 article published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency which he seems to think faults Israel for planting trees unsuited for the country’s climate and terrain, and which are more likely to catch on fire following dry summer months (as I note below, this source in fact does not say this at all):

Abunimah also shared with his many followers a 2010 article written by fellow anti-Israel and BDS traveler Max Blumenthal which alleges that Israel’s Jewish National Fund—JNF (in Hebrew: Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael—KKL) — planted non-native trees more prone to problems like fire on land stolen from the Palestinians as a way of “greenwashing”—covering up a massive land theft:

The notorious antisemite Gilad Atzmon has also blamed the fires on Israel, specifically the JNF-KKL. Here’s his short blog entry titled “Why Is Israel Burning?” which he posted to his website last Thursday:

gilad-atzmons-blog-post

Atzmon’s post has now been re-printed and linked on many anti-Israel blogs and Arab websites and shared widely by other BDS activists on social media.

The Truth About the Trees and the Arson

As noted above, Ali Abunimah cites a 2011 JTA article by Dina Kraft in order to find fault with Israel’s choice to plant pine trees. Atzmon also accuses Zionists of introducing the pine tree from Europe and eradicating the “Palestinian landscape” and “natural forest” that had existed before Jews arrived to the area as “foreign” interlopers.

In fact, the JTA article, which includes a series of interviews with forestry experts, contradicts both Abunimah and Atzmon’s claims.

In it, Yigal Osem, a forestry expert at Israel’s Agricultural Ministry, notes that for centuries the area was covered in a patchwork of dense low-lying forest—including in the native woodland areas of the Carmel, Galilee and the Judean Hills—the areas hardest hit by this week’s fires.

But by the time the early Zionist settlers arrived, Osem says that:

much of the forestland had been depleted, used over the years as firewood, building material, grazing land for goats and sheep, and even train tracks in the Ottoman era.”

The place looked like a desert, and so “part of the Zionist ethos was to rehabilitate the view.”

[Credit: KKL-JNF Archive]

[Credit: KKL-JNF Archive]

According to Yisrael Tauber, the director of forest management for the JNF-KKL, the “pioneer pines” planted during the state’s early years did a “wonderful job” in restoring and revitalizing the land.

[Pine forest in Israel | Credit: Elder of Ziyon]

[Pine forest in Israel | Credit: Elder of Ziyon]

Further, Tauber notes that the Aleppo pine (also known as the Jerusalem pine) was selected in the 1930s because it was considered among the only type of tree that could survive and grow quickly and well in the arid soil that covers much of Israel.

The pines did create “the kind of forests with room for hiking and recreation that the Jews living in prestate Palestine knew from Europe.” But it wasn’t the case that these early Zionists chose the tree for that purpose, or that the Aleppo pine didn’t exist in the Carmel and Galilee region.

So the pine trees were native to the area, and the wooded forests were decimated not by the Jews, but by poor land management under Arab and Turkish rule.

Today, as the JTA article makes clear, JNF-KKL officials are well aware that the first generation of pines are aging—and that this makes them more prone to problems like pests, disease and fire. So the “planting paradigm” has shifted with a growing awareness of the importance of forest diversification.

In recent years other native varieties have been introduced (like the carob and common oak, now seen throughout Israel’s forests). Non-native pine species have also been introduced.

The JTA article highlights ongoing disputes among experts as to what specific tree species are native and how to best build a sustainable forestry. It also underscores that experts agree that exclusively pine-planted forests are especially vulnerable to forest fires.

But in terms of this past week’s raging fires, this is somewhat beside the point. Clearly the fires wouldn’t have been as severe or as numerous if not for the deliberate acts of sabotage.

The Jewish National Fund: Helping Israeli Jews, Arabs and the World

It’s not surprising that this week some of Israel’s harshest detractors would quickly pin the blame for the country’s raging brushfires on the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet LeIsrael (JNF-KLL) and its forest management.

That’s because for years the anti-Israel BDS movement has been waging a delegitimization campaign against the JNF-KKL. BDS activists have been working relentlessly to get its charity status revoked in the U.S. and other countries and to convince people to break ties with it.

camapign-to-stop-jnf

Pro-BDS activists protesting at JNF-KKL events and conferences is also a common occurrence:

Among the many crimes allegedly attributed to it, the “Stop the JNF Campaign” accuses the JNF-KKL of the “destruction of the natural environment.”

According to the Campaign’s promotional material:

The JNF-KKL has historically not been concerned about the environment at all—instead focusing on forestation and claiming land exclusively for Jews. The JNF-KKL has thus inflicted grave harm on the natural environment in Palestine…”

These charges are absurd.

The reality is that, founded in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for the Jewish people, the JNF-KKL’s many innovative development plans and initiatives have long benefited all of Israel’s residents (both Arab and Jewish).

That’s certainly the case today.

JNF-KKL manages hundreds of forests open year round to the Israeli public free of charge, and has worked to make parks and outdoor playgrounds across the country accessible to people with special needs. It’s also built nearly 300 state-of-the-art shelters in places within range of Gaza rockets.

Far from being indifferent to the natural environment, the JNF-KKL has significantly expanded the scope of river rehabilitation, water research, and R&D for arid agricultural techniques. At last year’s Paris Climate Conference, it joined Israel’s delegation, opening a pavilion for conference goers and organizing a side event for participants on deforestation.

[Visitor from Ghana at the JNF-KKL pavilion at COP21 | Credit: KKL-JNF]

[Visitor from Ghana at the JNF-KKL pavilion at COP21 | Credit: KKL-JNF]

The JNF-KKL’s knowledge in the fields of forestry, agriculture and food production is also shared with countries around the world, including developing countries in the global South.

Because of the JNF-KKL, Israel was one of only two countries in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in trees.

Here’s a few short video clips covering some of the JNF-KKL’s current initiatives. Many more are available on the internet and at the organization’s website:

Conclusion

As in most countries, the intensity of forest fires frequently is an unintended consequences of good intentions, such as failing to clear brush to keep the environment natural and suppression of fires which allows build up. Certainly, that’s been an issue in the American West. So to say that Israel’s forestry practices may have contributed to the spread of the fires is really not saying anything that could not be applied to many countries around the world.

But you don’t have to be a forest management expert to know this: there’s no tree species in the world that can withstand a man with hate in his heart and a lighted match and molotov cocktail in his hand.

And that is the issue here. The anti-Israel activists are blaming the victim. And using the trees as the excuse.

What they’re really saying is that Israel should have planted more arson-resistant trees. Uh huh.

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Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman